Hundreds of workers rally for pandemic protections at Philadelphia City Hall

Dee Dunn

Dee Dunn, a driver for Amtrak, is pictured at Monday's Labor Day rally in Philadelphia. (Nina Feldman/WHYY)

Updated: 12:45 p.m.

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In honor of Labor Day, roughly 200 city workers and union members from industries around Philadelphia rallied at City Hall Monday morning for pandemic workplace protections.

The group of city sanitation and water department employees, highway and railroad workers, professors from Temple University and others demanded personal protective equipment, access to COVID-19 testing, hazard pay, no cuts to public services and no more layoffs.

The rally marked a Labor Day like none other in recent memory, with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic thrusting workers’ issues into the spotlight while millions of Americans are unemployed.

Job losses from the coronavirus pandemic have hit lower-income workers the hardest. In April, more than half of low-income households had experienced job or income loss, compared to 43% overall. By June, half of low-income adults still felt unsure they would be able to make the next month’s expenses, according to census surveying.

Many of those who are working, including sanitation employees and teachers, are frustrated by the conditions.

At Temple University, members of the faculty union are still upset by the school’s decision to open its campuses for in-person learning — only to switch to mostly virtual classes last week after an outbreak of COVID-19. As of Sunday afternoon, 349 students and one employee tested positive for the virus.

Max Avener, who teaches math at Temple, said Monday it was “crystal clear” that the university’s decision to bring students back to campus was about getting tuition money.

Similar demonstrations have paid off during earlier months of the pandemic. In July, Temple University Hospital employees demanded hazard pay for their risky and consistent work caring for COVID-19 patients. A month later, Temple announced it would award $1,500 bonuses to all frontline workers.

Personal protective equipment like masks, face guards and gowns were in short supply in the early months of the pandemic, even for hospital workers dealing with the sickest patients. Even as China recovered from the pandemic and the global supply chains began to be patched up, workers at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities reported low supplies, meaning they were forced to care for multiple patients wearing the same protective gear, potentially spreading the virus among the most vulnerable patients.

“They wanted to call us heroes, but what they really want was martyrs,” says Marty Harrison, a nurse at Temple and a member of Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP). “That’s not what any of us signed up for.”

Speakers from various unions at Monday’s rally focused largely on showing solidarity with Philadelphia sanitation workers, who have been requesting more PPE since April. The event was emceed by social media sensation Terrill Haigler, also known by his Instagram handle “yafavtrashman.”

Haigler launched a campaign to sell t-shirts sporting a cartoon of a sanitation worker, and has been working with the union to put the proceeds toward purchasing PPE and cleaning supplies for his fellow workers. Haigler said he raised more than $32,000.

Terrill Haigler and his mother Jeanette in yafavtrashman shirts
Terrill Haigler and his mother Jeanette in yafavtrashman shirts. Haigler launched a campaign to sell the shirts to raise money for PPE for sanitation workers. He said he raised more than $30,000. (Nina Feldman/WHYY)

“I’m not surprised, because since he was little he’s always had this energy in him,” said his mother Jeanette Haigler, who came out to support her son. “His little self brought the whole city together.”

Earlier this summer, so many sanitation workers called out sick that trash and recycling collection was severely delayed in Philadelphia, and many workers were worried the city would hire new workers to replace them. In the end, the city signed a contract to bring on an additional 120 workers for six months. Those workers can be eligible for the union if they continue on with the department.

Terrill Haigler said next phase will be to advocate for hazard pay and steps to prevent layoffs.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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